Telling My Father by James Crews
Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2017
Reviewed by RAY HUDSON
Acquisition of technical proficiency is one thing; mastery is something else. James Crews proves he is an able practitioner in his volume, The Book of What Stays, winner of the 2010 Prairie Schooner Book Prize. His new book, Telling My Father, winner of the Cowles Poetry Prize, confirms his mastery. He conveys us through the illness and death of his father toward the fundamental mercy that he sees suffusing the world.
I read this book from beginning to end in one sitting. After I had read the first ten poems that constitute Part I in Telling My Father, I was hooked. Free of pretention or artifice, “Human Being,” the first poem, begins at a relaxed and disarming pace. It voices the duality that weaves through the book.
The human part of us
wants and needs and breaks,
but the being part sees
beyond the body’s aching
joints and joyful noises
to the open road ahead.
I suspect the slight awkwardness of the break between the fourth and fifth lines is as deliberate as it is effective. The terminally ill father appears in the second and third poems. By the fourth, he is dead. He is dead in the fifth and seventh poems. (The sixth provided a brief reprieve.) Love, grief, and bewilderment rack these poems. The eighth, in which the father is brought fiercely alive, describes his violent attack against a gay man. This is followed by “Elegy for Faces Nightclub, East St. Louis,” in which the poet, underaged and hesitant, enters his first gay bar. The final poem, the title poem for the volume, describes a nearly wordless encounter between father and son—brief, surprising, and transcendent.
I was, as I said, hooked. I needed to find out more about both father and son, about what mattered to each of them and between them. Part II delays this with poems that combine the “sensual music” of physical closeness—“the young in one another’s arms,” to quote from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”—with the heightened sensuality of mystical experiences, a more difficult accomplishment that reminded me of some of Roethke’s late poems and of Roy Campbell’s glorious translation, “Upon a Gloomy Night.” Ricocheting off each other, these two themes explore the certainty of physical closeness and the uncertainty of our spiritual natures.
In a way, Part II equipped me for the emotional toll the remaining two parts exacted. Part III begins with an astonishing epistemological blast, part natural history, part theology, and entirely compelling. “As You Label It So It Appears to You” begins:
If I say I see a heron lifting off
hours before dawn, I mean I see
a long, blue piece of me unraveling
from the dark. . . .
And a few lines later it ends:
The heron can already sense the water
warming up the way we know a word
spoken to a glass of liquid over time
will change its molecules. Call it holy
holy is what you will taste.
This is a mastery I have to trust. This is poetry at its most powerful; that is to say, at its most subversive. Images and lines and music all combine to transform me even as they carry me from beginning to end in one deft movement. I accept what the poem says unconditionally whether or not, on reflection, I buy into the philosophical theories at its core.
After this beginning, four pastoral poems set in the world of otters, woodstoves, lakes, wolves, and fireflies lead inevitably to the poet’s dying father, to the light in his eyes going out. The moment of his death, remembered the way many pivotal events are recalled, arrives wrapped in complex emotions.
When he died, I was at a diner eating
French fries with my lover who was already in love
with someone else.
That poem, “Last Kiss,” is followed by “First Breath,” and before long, the father returns in “Visitation on Telegraph Road.” Telling My Father is a complex work of theme and variations. A chance encounter on a metro train is transformed into yet another visitation from the father who
tosses back one last glance, lets
the unlit cigarette hang from his lips as he passes
through the turnstile, steps onto the escalator
and is slowly lifted into the station above.
There is both resignation and affirmation in Part IV, a sense that the poet survived the death of his father to become someone else. He is now able to celebrate the power of ordinary acts to sustain and transform us, as in “Note to Self.” The importance of the ordinary things of this world is magnified by the presence of death. Crews begins “When the World is Taken from Me,” the penultimate poem in this collection: “I know I will miss the first messy bite / into an apple. . . .”
Telling My Father ends with a question the dying man asked his son. “How do you know / I’m always with you? . . . But how do you know?” Crews answered by writing this book. The tension set up by Part I, while riveting and compelling me to read on, opens to what are the major themes of this complex book, themes that evoke an answer to that final question. The last poem is an invitation to reread the entire volume.
Ray Hudson has edited several published books on Alaskan history and ethnography, written a well-received memoir, Moments Rightly Placed, and has a young adult novel, Ivory & Paper: Adventures In and Out of Time, coming out from the University of Alaska Press in January 2018.